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Neighbourhood Watch arrived in England in 1982 in the village of Mollington, near Chester where it was known as ‘Home Watch’. I understand that it was set up by two local Bobbies and was loosely based on the US model that had been existence since 1972.
If there’s one thing I do know a little about it is Neighbourhood Watch. My knowledge about this excellent initiative comes from my days on the beat in Acton in West London from 1984 to ‘87.
With crime and especially burglary and vehicle crime on a steep rise and with police numbers well below their current levels the police were in serious need of help.
Although my memory is a little clouded with time I seem to recall an order from up on high to support the development of Neighbourhood Watch and to seek out busy individuals who might be willing to launch a new scheme. (Busy people always find the time to get things done!)
The first person I found on my beat was Jane. A secretary and PA in her life before children she was incredibly enthusiastic and from the get-go belted around the local streets pushing the pushchair finding others willing to be street coordinators to make the scheme work. I was amazed at her determined attitude and very quickly she managed to find representatives for the ten streets earmarked for her Watch area.
After the wine and cheese laden launch the Watch began working towards its objectives to reduce burglary and vehicle crime. They used to meet once a month at Jane’s house and I would go along and let them know what crimes had been committed in the area in the preceding month and give out descriptions of suspects. I’d also provide crime prevention advice and Jane noted it all down and produced an interesting newsletter, which was popped through everyone’s door by the street coordinators.
They also set up a ring-round system so that I could call something in and have information about a crime and the suspects circulated around the area within ten minutes of the first call.
Back then the objectives for Neighbourhood Watch in the Met police area were quite specific:
- Reduce burglary
- Encourage property marking
- Improve communication between local residents and the police
I mention this, because after about 18 months this particular Watch was assessed against its objectives by the then Doctor Trevor Bennet of Cambridge University. This was for the Home Office who wanted to see if Neighbourhood Watch was actually working.
The results were disappointing for all of us.
Burglary had apparently gone up slightly in the Watch area, which was something I remember disputing very strongly indeed. I found out that Doctor Bennet had started recording burglary data on the same day the Watch was launched. This gave no time at all for the street coordinators to work out their plan of action or set up their ring-round and it was a full 2 months before the first Neighbourhood Watch signs were put up. I argued that the measurement should have started from the day the signs were put in place, because how would a burglar know that he was in a Watch area. When I re-measured I found a 10% reduction in burglary against a 15% rise in Acton as a whole. He accepted my finding, but it was too late, for the report that had already gone to the Home Office!
Disappointingly, we didn’t do so well with the other two objectives: Only one percent of residents had or were intending to mark their property; a point we couldn’t really argue and although communication had definitely improved there was no evidence that the extra conversations had actually led to any reduction in crime or arrests of offenders.
Although this was quite a blow for their efforts the Watch members weren’t daunted at all and simply carried on doing the best they could. Over the next couple of years burglary and vehicle crime continued to rise a little, but I am certain it would have been a lot worse had it not been for the Watch. As far as I am concerned the Watch was successful – period!
In 1987 I left the beat to become the Crime Prevention Officer for Acton and very soon I began to appreciate just how important a decent level of home security was going to be. I wrote a number of practical crime prevention guides, which we circulated to the Watches, who in turn circulated them to their neighbours and slowly, but very surely a crucial objective for neighbourhood watch was developed – the spreading of best practice for home and vehicle security.
I used to have the coordinators in at the police station to teach them crime prevention theory and the nuts and bolts and some of them became quite expert at it and were able to advise their neighbours.
Looking back on it now I believe this was the golden age of crime prevention. Property crimes, such as burglary and vehicle crime were going through the roof, quite literally in some cases, and figures were not to peak for another seven years. This was probably the first time that the police service realised the importance of crime prevention and for a short time prevention and detection shared a level playing field.
At about the same time I entered the full-time crime prevention role those on high decided that the Neighbourhood Watch schemes were using up too much of the patrolling Home Beat Officers’ time and so there was something of an adjustment. Watches in areas that had very little crime to begin with were given a lot less support. Those that weren’t operating correctly were ‘let go’, but the ones that were doing well and had a lot of crime to contend with continued to receive the support they needed. We must have cut the number of schemes by half, but we did end up with the right number of Watches in the right places.